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How Music Affects Studying


A few weeks ago, I paid a surprise visit to my sister at her home. She looked confused initially, then she started crying out:”Oh no!  M is having her exams this week!”.

M is my niece and she’s having her PSLE this year. My sister and my brother-in-law have been vexing and worrying about her performance in her exams. While M is nonchalant about the on-going prelim exams, both her parents have been losing sleep over it. “Problem with her is, she is always on her earphones listening to music! How to study with the music blasting? How can she concentrate?”, my sister laments. I just kept quiet, nodding my head. But in my head I thought of how I studied when I was still in school and I realize I was exactly like M, listening or watching tv while studying. And I begin to question whether music is really detrimental to studying and learning? After all, I survived all my exams by this method! Most people can agree that studying and poring over textbooks is boring and sleep inducing, which is why I understand why my niece is listening to music while studying; to kill her boredom and to stay awake.


Ever since I became a mother, music is still a big part of my life, albeit it has taken a different route; nursery rhymes and children songs (hi-5 anyone?). I have been singing to my twins because firstly, it’s something I do best. I can remember a lot of songs and lyrics and we usually play a game that whenever we see an animal I will sing a song related to it. Furthermore, my kids enjoy listening to my singing and we will do the jiggly dance to the head & shoulder song, or skeleton dance. We could do this for hours, while my hubby disgruntle at the annoying songs. Thirdly, singing nursery rhymes actually help children in expanding their vocabulary. It also helps in memory development.( find out more here). So in a way, songs can capture the attention more which is why children learn songs lyrics fast because as it is catchy and fun.

Mother and her little daughter sing into the microphone, looking

Looks like music is good for younger children, but what about for older children or even adults? In younger children, singing helps them to learn as the songs are part of the ‘learning materials’, but if you were studying for your maths exam how would it actually affects your ability to learn? After reading many journals with regards to this, I found that music can both hurt OR help learning at the same time. How is that possible? Well, firstly we all have a fixed cognitive capacity. When you do both things at the same time, both task will require your attention, so you will have less attention to focus on each. However, music helps to keep us awake and interested and reduce stress, so we are more likely to finish reading a textbook if the music was on than if the music was off. For boring, repetitive tasks/chores, music actually help make the task easier or more enjoyable so you finish it faster.

In that case, what does that leaves us with? To studying with music or not? I personally believe in creating an environment that arouses you enough to stay awake but not distracting enough to disturb your studying. When I was still in school, I remember going to a nearby not-so-crowded fast food restaurant to study. The background noise and unfamiliar environment create a moderate arousing environment so I won’t be able to fall asleep. If that is not possible, perhaps you can make a playlist of songs that doesn’t contain any lyrics so that it will not interfere with the “language department” in your brain, as you need that for reading.


Pros of using music while on a task:

1) Reduces stress and relaxes the body and mind, allowing better performance on task.

2) According to studies, if you listen to a familiar music while learning/studying a subject, recollection of the song will aid in retrieval of the information studied.

3) Keep the body and mind arouse to allow for task completion

4) Make the task more enjoyable.

Cons of using music while on a task:

1) Distraction as the brain has to concentrate on both task. You definitely do not want to do this on important or dangerous task!

2) Songs with lyrics are more distracting during studying because it takes up the language capacity needed during reading.

3) Newer songs or unfamiliar songs are more mentally taxing and distracting.


Therefore, I have come to a conclusion that is:

  • If it is possible for you to not listen to any music while studying or doing a task then don’t start!
  • If you need to listen to music while studying new information, then choose a playlist of familiar songs that does not contain lyrics so that it will not interfere with reading.
  • If you need to listen to music while doing a boring and familiar task, such as mopping the house, it doesn’t matter if the songs is lyric-ed or not. Also does not matter if the song is new or old as the task is more or less “auto-pilot”.
  • If you are reading and comes across some information that are important, pause your music so that you can concentrate and absorb the information.


PS: Read here for more information about what music does to productivity if you are interested!

Also, you might be interested in reading this article if your child does not seem to adapt well to the traditional “mugging” type of studying. I will write about this another time when I have more time because I think it is really important!


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Comments 4

  1. Patricea Chow-Capodieci says:

    I always found silence to be quite deafening and could never study in designated study rooms or the library. Yet public places like Starbucks was too noisy and mugging at home made it feel like I was the only person suffering. So I would meet with my friends in a public place, like Starbucks or in front of lecture halls, and we would be plugged into our discman (remember those) and be able to concentrate! Not too quiet, not too noisy.

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